Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion

Public OpinionIn a speech in front of the House of Commons, Winston Churchill once quipped that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He was expressing a truth largely lost on us today, that democracy is imperfect, that ballot boxes and other mechanisms of voting are by themselves no guarantee against tyranny. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, protecting freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, gives some indication of how democracy might be subverted, for anyone in a position to control the organs of knowledge and restrict the flow of information could exercise immense influence on the voting process. Walter Lippmann was born in New York in 1889, studied under eminent thinkers like William James and George Santayana at Harvard, and went on to an illustrious career in journalism. His Public Opinion explores how public perception is created – and often abused – and how little emphasis is placed on its vital role in democracies.

The first problem Lippmann identifies is one of scale. It’s all very well and good to employ democracy in a village, where every villager is known to every other, and no event is too small to escape public notice, but how do the mechanisms of democracy operate in a city or country, where few people have any direct relationship with the events, people and policies reported as news? “[…]The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations.” The next problem is one of time: in our busy days, we have only so much attention to devote to news, particularly of events that do not pertain directly to our existence. This, then, is the problem: democracy calls us to vote on matters with which we may have only a passing acquaintance, to voice opinions that are built on second-hand knowledge. The process is hugely fallible, open to exploitation by anyone seeking to interpose their opinions and biases between the events as they really happened and the public’s perception of them.

To cope with this dilemma, Lippmann argues, the public has evolved a reliance on stereotypes and symbols, methods of condensing volumes of information into easily digestible models. These models may be truthful, or contain only a grain of truth, but they infallibly promote consensus among the masses:

Where masses of people must cooperate in an uncertain and eruptive environment, it is usually necessary to secure unity and flexibility without real consent. The symbol does that. It obscures personal intention, neutralizes discrimination, and obfuscates individual purpose. It immobilizes personality, yet at the same time it enormously sharpens the intention of the group and welds that group, as nothing else in a crisis can weld it, to purposeful action.

The preeminent example, to my mind, is the testimony provided by Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ of Iraqi soldiers snatching infant children from Kuwaiti hospital incubators and leaving them to die. The average American had no real knowledge of Kuwait, or of Iraq, but the image of Iraqi soldiers acting so monstrously towards helpless children was a powerful symbol, irrefutable proof of Iraqi malevolence and the necessity of American intervention. That it was later discovered that Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ was a fabulist, the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador to America, only proves Lippmann’s point about the power of symbols and the public reliance on them.

A trusted journalist, like a trusty mechanic, is a rare and valuable thing, and I’m afraid Lippmann’s concerns are only amplified in the age of the Internet, which, far from delivering on its promises of democratizing knowledge and information, has only provided more powerful, far-reaching methods of (to borrow Lippmann’s term) “manufacturing consent.” As he puts it, “the practice of appealing to the public on all sorts of intricate matters means almost always a desire to escape criticism from those who know by enlisting a large majority which has had no chance to know.” To be mindful of these traps, to exercise scrutiny and skepticism in our readings – in short, to take on the responsibilities and not merely the rights of a citizen – is our only safeguard. I cede to Lippmann the final word, from a passage that should be memorized by anyone aspiring to a position of leadership:

Since my moral system rests on my accepted version of the facts, he who denies either my moral judgments or my version of the facts, is to me perverse, alien, dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid, because it saps the very foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole. It is only when we are in the habit of recognizing our opinions as a partial experience seen through our stereotypes that we become truly tolerant of an opponent. Without that habit, we believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition. For while men are willing to admit there are two sides to a “question,” they do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as a “fact.” And they never do believe it until after long critical education, they are fully conscious of how second-hand and subjective is their apprehension of their social data.